The Invisible Homeless

We see them at intersections of busy highways, cardboard sign in hand, oftentimes very rugged in appearance.

We see them when we volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters, oftentimes lined up all the way out the door.

We see them in large cities, oftentimes being approached by a police officer.

But when it comes to homeless people, there are more than meet the eye.

Typically, the word 'homeless' brings to mind images like the ones shared above- it is an urban issue, with people living on the streets, asking strangers for spare change. The population is visible, strikingly so. Yes, this highly apparent type of homelessness is generally associated with the alleys and park benches of metropolitan areas.

But there is another type of homelessness, one that often eludes public recognition and policy. It is virtually impossible to find in records and research and is often mistaken for poverty. In fact, most researchers literally call individuals in this situation 'the invisible homeless'.

This invisible category of homelessness is characterized by individuals who do not necessarily lack shelter, but they do lack stability. It is most often found in rural areas, where it is more unlikely to see people actually living on the street and equally unlikely to see an emergency shelter within reasonable walking distance. The general lack of accessible resources in rural areas is why homelessness is and should be an even more pervasive issue in these settings.

While the rural homeless may not be sleeping on city sidewalks or in public places, they are not any less homeless than their urban counterparts. They may be sleeping in their car, a church, an abandoned building, or, most commonly, on the couch of a relative or friend. Rural areas tend to be comprised of closer family units and interpersonal relationships than urban centers, so it is likely that family and friends will take in an individual in a homeless situation. Unfortunately, this pattern has become somewhat normalized and can prevent a person from seeking further services. In general, citizens of rural areas see homelessness as a temporary situation rather than a chronic condition. It is seen as the result of economic hardship rather than long-term and long-lasting influences and stressors. Thus, the individual is often encouraged to seek a new job as the solution to all their problems. However, attributing homelessness to only one factor is not always helpful.

For the past ten weeks, I have been collecting anecdotal evidence of homelessness in rural American Indian communities in North Carolina. A major recurring theme is that individuals and families end up living in homes with several other occupants because the homeowner refused to "let" the needy individual be homeless. The misconception is that as long as there is a roof over their head, the person is not homeless. This is not the case, even though federal policy can sometimes allow it to be as such. Some policies account for housing instability as homelessness, while others do not. In rural situations, homelessness absolutely should include individuals and families who are unable to obtain and/or maintain housing. As in the case of the American Indian communities, just because someone has family who will not let them sleep, literally, outside does not mean they are not experiencing chronic homelessness. Also, rural homelessness, just like urban homelessness, is not one dimensional. It is not simply the result of economic hardship and underdevelopment. It can be attributed to unfair housing shortages, substance abuse, mental health stigmatization, historic discrimination and disadvantage, and severe economic disparity. These have all been cited as issues in the communities I have worked in, but they are under-served due to the disparity of resources seen in rural areas. This is an unfortunate truth across the board of rural populations, and it needs to be addressed.

Homelessness exists everywhere, and it exists in many different ways. Just like everybody else, the people in these situations are experiencing them on a spectrum, and our resources and policies that are being made to help them need to exist on a spectrum as well. Ending homelessness will not happen with a one-size-fits-all approach; we must acknowledge all of its categories.

Remember, just because you cannot see it, does not mean it's not there.

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